The Agnosticism Fallacy

The term agnosticism owes its origins to the great twentieth century biologist T.H. Huxley, personal friend of Charles Darwin and champion of Natural Selection. Few nowadays understand that it is in fact an antonym of the word “Gnosticism”; referring to a diverse array of early Christian and Jewish religious sects which shared in common the belief that gnosis (or divine knowledge) enables humans to escape their imperfect materialistic world and become reacquainted with their true spiritual origins. Huxley’s intended meaning was a broader one, however, referring to matters concerning the existence of a god or gods generally. He described his position on the subject in a letter to Charles Kingsley of 1860:

I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. I have no a priori objections to the doctrine.

Darwin himself joined his colleague in this stance, the two united in celebration of doubt.

“Agnosticism simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that for which he has no grounds for professing to believe.” On the face of it, neutrality seems the most logical of positions to take on the possibility of god’s existence (and it’s important to stress at the outset that such a god must in these considerations be of the personal, intervening variety: for this is the definition of theism, with which atheism is directly contrasted). After all, absolute proof cannot, actually in principle, ever come down on either side of the debate: it is what philosopher Karl Popper would have called an a priori unfalsifiable hypothesis. Scratch the surface, however, and the cracks in this vacuous rationale begin to appear just as briskly as its foundations were laid.

William of Ockham’s famously successful methodology for investigating claims is commonly known as “Ockham’s Razor” (or the law of economy), and states that any explanation for a phenomenon should be as parsimonious as possible; in other words, that it should make as few assumptions as it can before arriving at its conclusion. Let’s reduce the proposition of the existence of a personal god (i.e. theism) to a statement of fact, and apply Ockam’s Razor to it. We are left with two competing conclusions: either the natural physical world is all that exists, or it is not. Either the human mind is composed of matter and energy alone (in which case the existence of an afterlife actually becomes logically impossible), or it is not. And it would surely be an insult to the reader’s intelligence to state which of these positions is the most parsimonious.

Thus, at one fell swoop, and by simple deductive reasoning, we’ve seen through the “equal leaps of faith” claim that so often rears its ugly head in debate on the subject. In fact, it is the basis of our legal system – the system which we entrust to settle matters of the utmost importance in our everyday lives – that supernatural occurrences don’t take place: we assume that in each and every case the laws of the physical Universe have remained constant and unwavering. Hard, tangible evidence and statistics are what stand up in court; not claims of divine intervention and miraculous happenings. We assume the natural world to be all that exists.

Absolute objective knowledge can never be the domain of man. If the more determined agnostic wishes to be anal about the subject, and insist on comprehensive proof, I’d issue the following challenge: in what sense do we actually “know” anything? That is to say, in what sense can anything ever be truly “proven” beyond all doubt? We do not live our lives with the expectation that various hypotheses must either be unequivocally shown to be true or unequivocally shown to be false. The diehard and consistent 50/50 agnostic ought to consider it unjust to see a defendant convicted of murder based purely on the physical evidence with which the jury were presented: how can we possibly know that something “else” wasn’t going on here, or – for that matter – in any event in human history? We cannot.

Put simply, atheism is the viewpoint that reality is as it seems. It’s about as unremarkable a claim as you’re likely to encounter; which makes it all the more outrageous and frustrating for it to be considered the hallmark of an extremist. Unfortunately, and it may well be due to a vocal, condescending minority, agnosticism is becoming increasingly used as an intellectual “trump card” by those who wish to portray both theism and atheism as equally as close-minded (and, in actual fact, tend – at least in this writer’s experience – to be more sympathetic to those in the former camp). Yet those of us in the latter are doing no more than applying logical parsimony and common sense to the world which we observe. As Clarence Darrow put it, “I do not believe in God because I do not believe in Mother Goose.”

by Adam Dinan


“24 LOGICAL FALLACY *A logical fallacy is a flaw in reasoning… intended to create a certain belief on the part of the receiver.” by vincent easley PapaGandaPanda is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Atheist Ireland


  1. Avatar
    brian t March 23, 2009

    Thanks for this: I’m also getting a bit annoyed at how some people incorrectly use “agnostic” to mean “I don’t know”, when it actually means “I can never know”, and fail to see the difference.

    If I call myself an atheist, it tell you what I don’t believe in, but it doesn’t mean “I know” either way. I don’t call myself an agnostic, because I think it is possible to answer these questions, even if such answers may never appear as long as the human race exists. If I did call myself an agnostic, I’d be giving up on the question altogether, regardless of what I believe or not.

  2. Avatar
    Adam May 15, 2009

    Yes, sorry about that. Only realised afterwards.

  3. Avatar
    A G Nostic May 27, 2009

    1) ‘I Don’t Know’ is encompassed by ‘I can never know’, so differentiating between the two only amounts to arguing over timeframe. Thus, perceiving a substantive difference between the two positions strikes one as rather peculiar, and dare I say it, pedantic.

    2) The blog above could only explode the fallacy of the agnostic position to those already converted, ie the choir. I see nothing in the above that in any way substantially contradicts the assertion that believing there is a god/supernatural or believing there isn’t, is only the different sides of the same coin. Hanging the whole ‘fallacy of agnosticism’ thought on Ockham’s/Occam’s Razor, which in the final analysis, is only an observation, and not in anyway, a scientific proof, strikes one as some distinctly wan reasoning, which like I said, could only ever find the murmured favour of the choir.

    3) If atheists want a country devoid of religion, then go set one up somewhere, as the Jews did, for their religion. The rest of us, religious and non-religious alike, will just learn to get along like grown ups when dealing with the issue of religion in society – something which atheists very often appear to have a notable inability to do.

    Keep up the good work, though.

  4. Avatar
    I.M. Pistoff May 31, 2009

    as for A G Nostic’s 3rd point, getting along like grown-ups is the LAST thing any religious idiots will ever be doing amongst themselves, much less with non-believers; atheists haven’t caused an eternity of war and conflict. your suggested complacency is one more reason for the perpetuation of this ridiculous fairy tale and its permeation of every facet of human culture; if we are ever to evolve into something greater, it needs to be eradicated.

  5. Avatar
    Fatapaft July 13, 2009

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